This year I’ve had the pleasure of teaching a group of Oheb Shalom members once a month at a Midtown Manhattan law office. The study group is dubbed “Prophets and Profits” because we discuss that week’s Haftarah portion from the prophetic section of the Bible and then receive a market report. (The group is open to anyone who wants to join—for more information contact Paul Schechner.)
At a recent session, I shared the idea that the events of Passover, including the enslavement of the Israelites, the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea, probably never happened. We have absolutely no material historical evidence that there were such events, other than the Bible itself. We can prove that there was a Temple in Jerusalem (both the First and Second Temples) and that our ancestors lived in the Land of Israel during the 1,000-year period prior to being defeated by the Romans and exiled from our land. There’s archaeological evidence of those things. But there’s no hard evidence that anything connected to the holiday of Passover actually happened.
Jaws dropped. People turned white. One person said, “Rabbi, you’re killing me…I just can’t accept that none of this stuff is true. Passover will never be the same for me.” I answered that all of it is true, it’s just not historically factual. There’s truth in the story, there’s inspiration in the celebration of the holiday, and the Seder still has meaning and purpose, even if we can’t prove that it’s historically accurate.
To borrow a term from the current political climate, Passover isn’t “fake news.” The story wasn’t invented to create an alternative reality or to be a diversion from the truth. Likely, the story of Passover as recounted in the Torah is a collection of communal myths and legends that became embedded into the people’s national religious consciousness over a period of many centuries. That theory explains the conflicting details in the story (for example, we are commanded both to refrain from eating leaven and to eat matzah for seven days, and there’s no reason to conclude that we eat matzah because the Israelites had no time for their dough to rise). Passover is the story of who we are as a people, where we came from, and what we aspire to become. It is a story about the quest for faith and the meaning of freedom. The Haggadah is not a history book as much as it is a collection of poetry and allegorical tales meant to prod us to feel more deeply about human suffering and animate us to do more to achieve justice in our world.
It doesn’t matter if the events of Passover are historically accurate or not. Its meaning and message, its call to summon us all to work for the freedom and dignity of all human beings, its urging to see the holiday in the context of the struggles and challenges of today, such as the largest number of refugees in history, human trafficking, racial injustice, gender inequality and bias against LGBTQ people, all combine to remind us that Passover has something to say regardless of whether the story is real or not.
If you’d prefer to believe that the story of Passover is real, that’s fine. And it’s also fine if you see it as a mythical story that has something to say to us, for in a very real way it does.
My entire family—Amy, Eitan, Dita, Noam, Josh, Yoni, Benji and Aaron—join me in wishing you a meaningful and fulfilling Pesach celebration.
Note: If you would like to be a guest at a Seder, or if you have room at your Seder table for guests, please let me know and I’ll try to make a match.